Why You Should Care About Genome Editing: Cut + Paste At The Francis Crick Institute

By M@
Why You Should Care About Genome Editing: Cut + Paste At The Francis Crick Institute
Outside of the Francis Crick Institute with two people looking at some printed material
Image courtesy of the Francis Crick Institute

Gene editing is going to be huge... but it also has enormous ethical implications.

If you find yourself in King's Cross with a spare 20 minutes or so, then take a wander over to the Crick. This huge medical research centre is about 20 paces from St Pancras station, and makes a much more stimulating alternative to a crowded concourse, if you've got to wait for a train.

Simply wander in and, immediately on your right, is a small cafe and exhibition space, free to explore on Wednesdays through to Saturdays.

The current exhibition looks at genome editing — that is chopping and changing the DNA of a human, animal or plant to treat disease or improve a characteristic. It's something they do a lot of at the Crick, using (and developing) cutting edge technologies in the fight against disease. As we discovered from the exhibition, the applications are staggering, and the ethics often murky. It's a topic everyone should be aware of.

A look at a colourful museum exhibition
Image courtesy of the Francis Crick Institute

Most people would agree that it's a good idea to tweak DNA to help individuals with, for example, sickle cell disease — an application that's already under clinical research. But what about making changes that would be passed on to the next generations? We could potentially wipe out inherited conditions — but who gets to decide which traits should be expunged? It smacks of eugenics.

Then there's the question of using gene editing to "improve" humans and other species. Turns out cows can be made less "burpy" with a genetic tweak. This could be viewed as a useful tool for fighting climate change (by reducing a notorious methane source), or an expensive distraction from efforts to cut meat consumption. And then we have this thought about "superhumans" from the late, great Professor Hawking:

A quote from Stephen Hawking about superhumans

The Crick's exhibition doesn't really exhibit very much, but its well-thought-out displays will get you thinking about issues that will surely be at the crux of 21st century society. You'll also get a chance to have your say in multiple ways, including a voting booth. After reading about the pros and cons of six potential applications, you're invited to drop a coloured ping-pong ball into the slot that best reflects your views. As you can see below, the subject polarises, with the extremes of "Bring it on!" and "No way!" getting the most votes.

Some colourful cushions in the foreground with a voting booth in background

This is not a large exhibition, and you can probably 'do' the whole thing in about 20 minutes if you want to dash back for a train. But the exhibition is best enjoyed with friends or family in tow. The pros and cons are set out with such clarity that you'll want to grab someone and say "What do you think?".

Cut + Paste, created in partnership with The Liminal Space, is at the Francis Crick Institute until 2 December 2023. Open Wed, Thu, Fri, Sat. Entrance is free. The exhibition and other resources can also be viewed online if you can't make it in person. Images by the author unless otherwise stated.

Last Updated 17 February 2023